The Occupation Museum in Rīga, it was a very different museum—a museum of lies. It was on my first trip to then Soviet Latvia, and we traveled as a tour group (something I never do, preferring to travel alone—but the Soviet government did not allow solitary travelers, as it would be too difficult to keep an eye on all of us). Our group gathered in the lobby of Hotel Riga, the only hotel in which “foreigners” were allowed to stay, and we were carefully sheparded by a Soviet tour guide onto a bus, over to the museum, off the bus, and in a tightly gathered group through the museum. It was the mid 1970s, and the walls of the museum were plastered with paintings of Soviet workers, fists upraised, holding sickles and hammers, all in glory to Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.
|Concentration camp barracks|
Attendance at the museum was obligatory.
All these years, I did not return to the museum. Not even after Latvia had regained its independence, and the museum contents had been tossed into the garbage heap, to be replaced by what was for Latvians very much like the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I couldn’t bear to go inside. My stomach churned and retched at mere sight of the heavy, brown building on the shores of the Daugava River.
My fears were abated the moment I went inside. No one was watching me as I walked in. No one was examining my face for my response. No one was leaning in to hear my conversation with Alda. No one was pushing me along from exhibit to exhibit, filling my brain with mush. I could move about freely, at my own pace, and come to my own conclusions.
I had been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. This was smaller, but it was very similar. Similar barracks replicated, similar human stories of suffering. Families torn apart, starvation, torture, execution, a wave of refugees, battles waged in the streets, the cities and villages, and finally in the forests as guerilla warfare, in a wave of resistance to the Soviet government that lasted, amazingly, into the 1960s.
|Latvian refugees escaping the country in boats, my family among them|
To the credit of the United States, despite Roosevelt’s betrayal, the Baltic States were never acknowledged by this government as being legally a part of the Soviet Union. Go figure. But better late than never … 51 years later, we were acknowledged again as a free nation, and the first to accept our new and independent government was Iceland.
It was a complicated and messy history, a trail of pacts and treaties and promises that left the Baltic nations in the dust. The Latvian president at the time of the Soviet occupation was Kārlis Ulmanis, who was later deported somewhere north into Russian tundra and executed. It was many years before anyone was to know anything about his final days.
|Weapons used in Latvian resistance movement|
Sunlight dazed us as we emerged again from the museum. It had been a very different experience, indeed, than the time before. I knew this history … I knew it from my family, from school, from my own later reading and research. I knew it from hearing Andris’ stories, giving me another level of understanding when I heard about life in Soviet Latvia from my own counterpart, my own generation, realizing, there but for the grace of God go I… I knew it, but to see the artifacts with my own eyes was sobering.
Bastejkalns was one of my favorite spots in Rīga. The city had, in fact, many parks, and flower vendors on most every street corner attested to the Latvian love of nature. A dose of green was a necessary part of every day, and perhaps even more so because life had been so dark so long, flowers in all their gaudy glory were everywhere. Boats floated lazily down the canal, oaks and maples and willows and linden trees leaned branches over the water, graceful stone sculptures popped up in the middle of flowerbeds, ducks paddled over its mirrored surface, and people strolled and sat on benches, taking a moment out of their day to connect with nature.
In a world that sometimes reeled in insanity, in the brutality and cruelty of man against man, nation against nation, these patches of beauty brought sense back where there was none. Yet again, I was struck by how color had returned to Latvia. From these years of gray—gray buildings, gray faces, gray lives—to this vibrant color, almost frivolous, yet in essence, deeply necessary.
(To be continued…)